SXSW and Confirmation Bias

Empathy works. It always does.

Also with online harassment.

SXSW-screenshot-350x321That’s the main message for my panel participation at SXSW (Yes, with President Obama as keynote speaker).

A friend tells me that my tagline is an opinion, not a fact. It’s a moralistic judgement. He acknowledges it is my truth, and he tells me I could present it more authentically if I show up in it.

“I believe empathy works. I think it always does.”


Not so powerful. Not so snazzy. More cumbersome.

And yet. He is right (he often is). It is just my belief, based on my years of empathizing NVC-style. Am I suffering from confirmation bias? A cognitive bias wired into our brains that creates the tendency to see confirmation of our core beliefs in our experiences, while disregarding experiences that don’t affirm our core beliefs?

What happened to my scientific scepticism, so well-trained during my graduate studies at Rijksuniversiteit Leiden? Should I actively seek out situations –or create them?- that might disprove my thesis? Something like: Empathy works: In these cases? And not in those?

Gosh, that actually sounds enticing. Can I find situations with a high likelihood of empathy failure? Can I pretend I am initiating research on the limits of empathy? And are you willing to send me examples where you think empathy isn’t enough to create respectful understanding? I would be excited to see how empathy might work, even in the most difficult cases.

You want help to develop awareness of your confirmation bias? Contact me, 512-589-0482 for a free, discovery session.

Thank you, David Nayer, for editing this post during your travels. I am inspired by your dedication to contribute!

2 Replies to “SXSW and Confirmation Bias”

  1. I cannot use specific examples. I will say that for some people it seems their traumas and/or their intense shame from traumas they experienced as perpetrators are so strong that it takes a tremendous amount of committed re-occurring empathy experiences before change is made. In the softening/self connection, it seems people are connecting with their own empathy towards self and others and maybe even recognizing that an acceptable human need/intention was thwarted. It is my opinion that it often seems to return to an unmet need to feel loved or self loved at a critical juncture. It is harder to identify and work through when this occurred in pre-conscious age (infancy and gestation) or through terrible violence. The defense mechanisms that block self love and love for others sometimes occur in powerfully emotional and rationalized ways, turned inward or externalized. I believe that the form of empathy towards them that we call forgiveness of self plus then accepting them into community creates transformation. (I am also trying to consider your audience in the online harrassment forum).

    I heard an NPR story about a woman, who through the statement “what are you doing? You are hurting me” turned the heart of a serial rapist and killer. She said that to him in the moment he began strangling her after he had already brutally and repeatedly raped her. When I contemplate her message and tone in that moment, it seems she was suspending the judgement that he was an offender, and was instead conveying that this was surprising her because she thought, through all of that, that he was capable of empathy himself. And he stopped. She personally described him in comparison to a person who plays with a lamb/feels care for it, and then being incapable of slaughtering it. I suppose this is the premise of restorative justice as well.

    I realize this is not an example of failed empathy. So, here is more. It is more of a challenge for empathizers to use empathy when the message turned towards them is “shut up, you are weak, you lack intelligence, you are not sane”. Those judgements can really challenge an experience, but when the empathizer has a strong sense of self, a still mind, and is capable of staying in compassion and wisdom in that moment, then inroads can still be made. That has been my experience, and is only based on my perception.

    I am excited with you to learn about situations in which it does not seem to work! Progress!

    1. Thank you, Eden, for your elaborate response. I value your input and your thoughts, especially since I read so much compassion and inspiration in your sharing. I felt tears in my eyes when I read about the woman being strangled. And I do think the less our needs are met in early childhood, the more difficult it is to be empathic toward ourselves. It takes repeated experiences of empathy and acceptance, especially in community to restore that sense of self-love and -eventually- love for others. That’s what I remember from reading Teyber’s book “Interpersonal Process in Therapy”.

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